Apr 29, 2008 4
Nawaz Sharif is in a bind.
Wednesday is the last day left for the judges to be restored as promised by his party and Asif Zardari’s in their Murree Declaration.
But Zardari, as evinced in recent interviews, has veered completely off course in the final hour (he was swerving around during the past few weeks). Yesterday, Zardari made it clear he considers the Murree Declaration a “political agreement.” In Pakistan’s political culture, such an agreement has the value of toilet paper (or, perhaps more culturally appropriate: lota paani).
So Sharif has three choices: stick and compromise with Zardari, pull his ministers out of the cabinet (yet stay in the governing coalition), or totally break away from the PPP. None of these moves will seriously impact the PPP immediately. It has the backing of Pakistan’s establishment as well as foreign powers. The PML(N) can be easily replaced by the MQM and PML(Q). But Nawaz Sharif and the PML(N) will likely feel the impact quickly.
Sticking with Zardari provides no guarantees whatsoever.
Sharif could concede to the PPP’s demands (whatever they are now). Parliament could move for the judges’ restoration in a special session as early as Thursday. But that’s highly unlikely.
Zardari could provide Sharif with another vague commitment, bid for more time, and then come up with another story in a few weeks. This would publicly humiliate Sharif, if he hasn’t been already. Moreover, Sharif’s political renewal is much in part due to his uncompromising stance on the judiciary issue. If he’s seen as giving in, his political capital will suffer. This will be exacerbated if his compromises yield little of substance.
Alternatively, if the judges are restored with somewhat manageable concessions (e.g. letting Justice Chaudhry stay around till 2010), then Sharif and his ministers get to stay in the central government and, more importantly, at the helm in Punjab. This is the most palatable scenario for Sharif.
If Sharif distances himself from the PPP partially or completely, then he and much of Pakistan could be put on a path of confrontation with the establishment as well as the PPP. Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz, would likely be unable to return to electoral politics without any radical political change. Most importantly, he’ll be further pushed into the rightist camp (the Jamaat-i Islami and Tehreek-i Insaaf). And that will serve the interests of those who would like to discredit him internationally as a clean-shaven mullah. Sharif might win with much of the Pakistani street, but with the rising economic challenges, who knows if they’ll even have the stomach for another judicially-oriented fight.
With that said, Zardari’s moves are not without risk. His behavior since the murder of his wife has been praiseworthy. Those who once opposed him had since described him as a statesmanlike. Now he appears, in the eyes of many, like a typical Pakistani politician or swindling car salesman. Zardari should keep in mind that he is not and will never be a Bhutto. If he ditches the PML(N), reverts to the politics of old, and becomes prime minister this summer, he will become the perfect political punching bag for a great number of parties. Magnamity, statesmanship, and sympathy from his wife’s murder have shielded him from public scorn. Once all those wear off and he’s at the top, there will be little to shield him from a multi-directional onslaught.